FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
Football is a squad game, and it has been ever since the first manager realised that these new fancy rules about "substitutions" didn't actually specify "the withdrawn player must be bleeding from the face and/or missing a major limb". Since that time, we've gone from one to two, two to three, and now we're sitting at five permitted changes. That's half an outfield team.
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Fresh legs, a new shape: the possibilities for the imaginative manager are endless. Brazil coach Tite, for example, after watching Richarlison go full Shaolin Soccer to secure a 2-0 lead over Serbia, turned to his bench and began to make a point. A very noisy, frankly chilling point.
76th minute, and on comes Rodrygo. Three minutes later, Gabriel Jesus. Antony followed a minute later, and Gabriel Martinelli jogged with just three minutes left on the clock. By the time he was done, Brazil had changed their entire attack, and yet still boasted a frontline to strike fear into every other side in the competition. Not so much a tactical change as a managerial flex. To think that other countries, feeble countries, are worried about their first-choice attacking options. Pah!
To be fair, Brazil's supporters are also probably a little worried, given that Neymar limped off with a swollen ankle and was later seen in tears on the bench. But the early rumours are of a sprain rather than anything tournament ending. And Brazil as a squad can never have been better placed to ride out a game or two without him. If he does end up on the bench, we're willing to bet that this collective doesn't lose hearts, minds, and heads.
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It takes more to win a World Cup than just a list of fancy attackers, mind. They have to actually do something. For example, one of them might tap the ball up for themselves, then flip up and around and scissor kick the ball into the net. According to his manager Richarlison smells of goals, which we assume means he smells like a bag of onions. Perhaps that discourages defenders from marking him too closely.
A beautiful goal, an obdurate clean sheet, and a dark horse well and truly tamed - this was a performance that suggested a happy Brazil, a well-balanced Brazil; a Brazil taking the task of being favourites seriously but not allowing it to become a burden. Which is, perhaps, a lot to read into a 2-0 win over a Serbia side that never really got going. But then, it's the World Cup. Everybody's reading too much into everything because everything is that important.
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So What Happened There Then?
If you asked Portugal manager Fernando Santos to describe his ideal football match, he'd almost certainly dismiss the question out of hand. Ideals? Those are for fools. Dreamers. The weak. He deals in realities, cold realities only, and what could be more real than nothing happening whatsoever until Ronaldo wins and then scores a soft penalty.
Perhaps that's a little harsh, as a description of the first hour. Perhaps Portugal were a little perkier than that suggests. But once they had their unlovely penalty, all they had to do from there was keep the ball, pass it around, close it out. The kind of situation Fernando Santos would dream about, if he dreamed. Which he doesn't.
Instead, it all went very strange indeed. Twice Ghana were able to unstitch Portugal down the left, keeping the game alive until the very last moment and giving Iñaki Williams the chance to emulate the great Dion Dublin.
Actually, there's quite an instructive contrast there. Dublin is able to shoot first time, whereas Williams is done by the need to manufacture the angle. So, goalkeepers, if you are going to pay absolutely no attention to your surroundings, the best place to do so is directly in front of goal. You'll still look a fool, but you'll give the forward something to do.
It's a very silly game, this silly game of ours. Portugal looked better, on balance, for the hour or so that they weren't winning the game, than the half hour in which they actually won it. Fernando Santos may not dream, but everybody has nightmares, and a Portugal side that tumbles headlong into chaos is, we're guessing, what keeps him up at night. That, and the impending game with Uruguay. Could be fun. He'll be hoping not.
Ding Ding, And That's Round One
The World Cup is many things to many people, often all at the same time. As a sporting competition though - which it still is, despite FIFA's best efforts - it's perhaps never more interesting than at this precise moment. Each team has played one game. Each team knows more or less exactly what they need from the next two. And each team faces a decision: stick or twist.
If we were to draw firm conclusions from this first round of games, we'd be looking at Spain thrashing France in the final, with England and Brazil going through the motions in the third-fourth play-off. But we're pretty confident that isn't going to happen, and not just because of the bracket. At least one team that has started like a train will come to a screeching halt. And at least one team that has started as a mess will improvise their way to something respectable.
That's how World Cups go. France were poor in their opener against Australia last time around: Didier Deschamps changed things around, and they won it. Spain lost against Switzerland in 2010: Vicente del Bosque grudgingly started picking one fewer midfielder, and they won it. It's not a hard and fast rule - Germany started their campaign in 2014 with a 4-0 stroll past Portugal - but it certainly is one path to victory. Tear up the plans, embrace the vibes, and wing it.
So of the stuttering giants, who has the capacity to turn it around? Argentina and Germany can both take heart from the fact that their attacks were functioning right up until the point they had to score a second goal. You can't win a tournament with xG but you can cheer yourself up a bit. Obviously Germany have the complicating factor of Spain up next, which might have required a rethink in any case. Hard to play keep-ball against a side that's better than you at keeping the ball.
On balance, it's Belgium we're most worried about. That spawny three points against Canada, and the fact that neither Croatia nor Morocco look particularly threatening, should mean that they make it out of the group. But if they look like this when they get there, tired and flat and utterly uninspired, then they won't be going much further. The winners of Group F play somebody from Group E, and we'd back any of Germany, Spain or Japan over Bobby Martinez and his aged golden boys.
IN OTHER NEWS
A spot of Welsh propaganda? Early on a Friday morning? Don't mind if we do.
Always fun, when England play the USA. And a good excuse to use the word "storied", if that's something you're into. Here's Oliver Kay over at the Athletic talking to Alexei Lalas and looking back at the broad history of the fixture, and the slow road towards something like mutual respect.
"For that 2010 game in Rustenburg, the American players were said to have been fuelled — as if they needed more fuel — by a headline in The Sun when England placed in what was perceived to be a dream World Cup draw: 'E.A.S.Y. (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks)', which was apparently the “best English group since The Beatles” … what followed was arguably England’s most chastening World Cup since 1950. [The 1-1 draw] clearly felt like a victory for America, judging by the memorable New York Post front page with the tongue-in-cheek exclamation: 'USA wins 1-1: greatest tie against the British since Bunker Hill'."
And here's Daniel Harris from a while ago, looking back at that 1950 shock for The Ringer. We particularly enjoyed this little aside, which contains, if you look closely enough, the history of English football in the twentieth century, apart from that one summer in 1966.
"Newly established in the team was Bert Williams, its fascinatingly handsome goalkeeper. A dedicated and meticulous man, he wrote to the FA before the tournament suggesting that he wear a thinner jersey than usual, given the warmer climate in Brazil. The reply was succinct: 'Dear Williams. Thank-you for your letter. We will not be pursuing your idea.'"
OTHER HAT TIP
We've been waiting for one of the papers to get this done, so fair play to the Guardian: here's Pete Pattinson in Doha's other fan zone, the one for migrant workers. Low-wage labourers sitting in a cricket stadium, watching the tournament unfold in venues they built but can't get back into.
"On a wall near the entrance to the fan zone, a banner in Arabic, English and Hindi reads: 'Thanks for your contributions for delivering the best Fifa World Cup ever.' Many here probably played a part in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament, but gratitude has its limits. While some match tickets went on sale for Qatar residents for just 40 rials (£9), no one the Guardian spoke to had managed to get one. Any that were available were far too expensive for workers who earn as little as £225 a month."
Seconds out, round two. In Group A, we've got Qatar vs Senegal - loser goes home - and the Netherlands vs. Ecuador. And over in Group B it's Wales vs. Iran and England vs. the good old You Ess of Ay.
And your all-singing all-dancing World Cup Warm-Up will return tomorrow.
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